1998, The Rhobells and The Rhinogs from Ganllwyd

Along with the overriding desire to walk somewhere fresh this year, something that was becoming increasingly difficult after all of the walks I had done in Snowdonia, this largely self-designed route geminated from a feature in a walkers’ magazine in 1994, which described a long circular walk in the northern Rhinogs, the part of that range that I did not reach in 1986. On studying a map, all sorts of things fell into place: walking through the huge forested area of Coed y Brenin, over the hilly Rhobells which in 1987 I had also failed to reach, around the southern end of Llyn Trawsfynydd, the afore-mentioned northern Rhinogs plus a waterfall or two.

I drove to Dolgellau, which for another change was a different town for me to look around, reaching this in about 4½ hours on a cloudy but mild Saturday. (I had by now abandoned the heavily congested M6 to the north of Birmingham in favour of a cross-country route between Bromsgrove, Kidderminster, Bridgenorth and Shrewsbury, which surprisingly can cut up to an hour off the total journey time. Over the years, I also encountered new bypasses on the A5, such as around Shrewsbury, and in the Oswestry area, which helped, too.) Of the three campsites at Dolgellau, one was a bit too far out-of-town and in the wrong direction, one I wanted to avoid after being charged a high price there in 1990, and one seemed to be ideal; it was the closest to the starting point of my walk, while it had the added attraction of being next to the historical ruin of Cymmer Abbey.

The reality was somewhat different. After going along a lengthy drive, one side of which was lined with motorhomes and touring caravans, and after paying another expensive fee, I found that the camping field was a hedge-bound triangle of very wet, gently sloping ground with long grass; I daresay it was too wet to get a mower onto it. Along one side, a line of close-ranked leylandii trees screened some static caravans from view, but unfortunately their great height also prevented any sunshine from reaching the field in the morning, which no doubt contributed towards its wetness. Worst of all was the camp’s toilet block. The gents contained a urinal, two w.c.s and two hand basins with cold taps only. There were absolutely no flat surfaces on which to put anything, and no hooks on which to hang anything, not even so much as a nail banged into the wall. Ablutions, I discovered, involved draping my towel around my neck while grasping my toilet bag firmly between my knees, dreading the thought of dropping anything on the floor. Outside, two unisex shower rooms, which had clearly been added at a later date, had a permanent queue of campers waiting to use them. Meanwhile, the National Trust wanted a silly amount just to look around four walls, which was all that remained of the old abbey, so I contented myself with viewing it for free from outside its boundary. To cap it all, at about 3:00 a.m. the whole site was treated to twenty minutes of revving high-powered engines and the screeching of tyres while a car rally made a circuit of forest tracks on the hill to one side of us.

UPDATE: I stayed again at Vanner Caravan & Camping Site, as it is known, in 2014, and I am pleased to say it has improved immeasurably since 1998. I would now recommend it to anyone.

Day 1

The sun shone out of a cloudless blue sky on Sunday morning, or so I could see above the gloom cast upon me by the leylandii trees while I waited in vain for my dew-sodden tent flysheet to dry. Driving four miles north up the A470, I left my van in a lay-by outside some houses at the village of Ganllwyd, from where I crossed a footbridge over the Afon Mawddach and strode southwards on a good track. This part of Coed y Brenin – the Forestry Commission’s oldest in Wales – is magnificent, with well-spaced mature conifers and plenty of sun-dappled grassy glades, just my idea of what a forest should be like. It was evidently a bit of a mecca for mountain bikers, too, though these were in bearable numbers, unlike some places I have seen, such as parts of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, that are absolutely swamped with them.

The track became a hilly metalled lane, not that there were any cars to disturb my walk, this led eastwards through the sleepy village of Llanfachreth and eventually brought me to upland grassland above a solitary cottage. A sparkling little lake, not marked on my map, was alive with dragonflies, and made the most perfect stopping place for lunch.

Heading northwards now, miles of little-used forestry track led me in the direction of 2,408 ft Rhobell Fawr, though on the way some of the forest was no more, having been felled long ago, while some had grown to make unrecognisable the photographs of the area I had seen in guidebooks published in the previous decade. Shown in one such picture, and marked on my map, was a remote cottage that had long since been demolished, leaving barely any trace of where it once stood beside the track. In spite of the changes, it was not too difficult to work my way around to the southern end of the ridge of Ddualt, where, at a height of about 1,500 feet, I found a near-perfect spot by a stream for my tent, and here I enjoyed a very comfortable night.

Day 2

Another cloudless day greeted me on Monday, when I was soon at the 2,172 ft summit of Ddualt, over it almost before I realised, followed by a lengthy descent to the infant Afon Mawddach below the northern end of the ridge. The retrospective end-on view of the mountain was terrific: a lofty, narrow ridge simply soaring into the sky. Mile after mile of empty moorland road was tramped next, something I had found unavoidable when planning the route, though there were scarcely any dwellings on the way, and no traffic. The views were expansive, but all this tarmac did become slightly boring, and it was even more of a bind when I took the wrong turning at a multiple junction, where I mistakenly thought the road to a “Holiday Village” of wooden chalets was the major route . This error brought me down onto the main A470 road over two miles prematurely. Rather than stumble along the grass verge all the way to Trawsfynydd, I studied the timetable at a bus stop that was opposite. As far as I could make out, a bus was due right about now. I waited five minutes, feeling like a proper idiot, before deciding it must have gone already. Less than ten minutes on my way along the road, the late bus roared past. Oh well, it looked as if it was full up with school kids, anyway.

Had I not gone the wrong way, the lane I meant to walk would have taken me all of the way to the edge of Trawsfynydd village, from where I had intended to double back on a very lengthy footbridge that crosses the southeast corner of the huge lake. However, long before reaching the village, the main road that I was now on passed the start of a track around the southern end of the lake, and as I had walked many miles this day, following this track was going to be preferable to continuing to the village just for the sake of coming back on the bridge.

Less than two miles along the track there was a small campsite, which consisted of a narrow field of grazed grass complete with sheep and chickens, a stream running along one side, a barn and a bungalow. The stream was diverted through a narrow pipe from which it poured into a long stone trough, and out of its other end. This was the water supply! A little corrugated iron hut contained a w.c. and a hand basin. The site was currently occupied by two frame tents and a motorhome. I set myself up in a corner beside an abandoned piece of agricultural machinery, which came in handy for hanging things on. The site owner, when she came home, politely charged me one pound. As I ate my evening meal, surrounded by hens hopeful of receiving a titbit, I contemplated the bulk of the now-defunct nuclear power station two miles distant on the far shore of the lake, with the sun setting across the Moelwyn mountains beyond it. And speaking of the sun, I now had a very sore face and head, which felt like, and no doubt looked like, a boiled lobster.

Day 3

The next day, Tuesday, was still warm, but a little hazy. Continuing for a short distance along the same track that had brought me to the campsite, I struck off westwards on a footpath that climbed to the base of the northern end of the Rhinog mountains, and here I discovered that I had lost the tip of my walking pole, about 2½ inches of it. Hiding my rucksack, I returned all of the way to the campsite and back, without finding it. The next upset was failing to find the way up onto Moel y Gyrafolen and Diffwys (a different Diffwys to the summit with the same name in the south of the Rhinogs!). This was in spite of carrying with me copies of not one but two authors’ explicit instructions. After three or four false starts, I just gave up and became inventive. A deep gulley, which I thought might have been the one mentioned by one of the writers, gave me the impression no human had ever ascended it before me, and made me wonder, not for the first time, how long it would be before anyone found me, if anything should happen…. An awful struggle through pathless bracken and tall heather followed, but I fought my way to a distant stone wall that contoured the slopes, on the basis that walls always have sheep’s paths alongside them.

Eventually I arrived at a track that was recognisable on my map, and this led to what was supposed to be a footpath that followed a small river all of the way up to the base of the cliffs of Craig Ddrwg, which are below the summit of Clip, and then down again to Llyn Cwm Bychan. Well, path there may have been on the map, but in the real world it was a case of wading through long grass, rushes and bogs for the first couple of miles, following the river. The scenery was magnificent, though. A path of sorts led me over the mountainous bit at the top, before disappearing again on the steep slopes leading down to Cwm Bychan, and leaving me to work out my own route. My map showed a camping symbol at the head of the lake, where I found a notice board in the car park. The lengthy small print listed a scale of charges for everything under the sun, with the exception of camping. I read it a second time just to make sure. As there were no tents to be seen, I decided it was best forgotten.

My last ascent of the Roman Steps from the lake to Bwlch Tyddiad had been twelve years previously, during which time a lot of restoration work appeared to have been carried out. There were now more steps than I remembered, and they were smaller. How much remained that was Roman, or Medieval as the historians now seem to think, and how much was 20th century was debatable. Passing the last of the day walkers on their return to the car park, I soon had it all to myself. My objective was the secluded lake of Llyn Morwynion, situated at about 1,500 feet. It was well off the north side of the path, and I had failed to locate it in mist in 1986. This time, in good visibility, it was not too difficult to find , and no less because others had forged a way before me, but it was a circuitous and lengthy route to reach a grassy area on the north shore. I kept stopping to mark the route with broken bracken and heather in case it was misty on my return in the morning.

On reaching the lake, I was amazed at the litter at such a remote spot; tea bags, bits of plastic wrappers and tissues were scattered around. It was unbelievable that people who went to the same trouble as I did to reach the spot could do this! Added to this, the grass was very short, while the ground was rock hard, and a cold wind sprang up at bedtime, making me fearful of a repetition of the 1996 gale that kept blowing my tent down; all in all it was an uncomfortable night.

Day 4

No gale materialised in the night, and Wednesday morning was clear and sunny again, warming up quite quickly. Apart from the climb from the lake back up to the footpath at Bwlch Tyddiad, all of today’s walking was to be downhill or level, which was a blessing, given the unseasonable high temperature. Walking three miles eastwards on tracks, with trousers rolled up to just below my knees, and shirt undone and untucked, I could have done with a sunhat, but I had never thought I would need one for the end of September.

A snag arose when I arrived at the point where I was to turn south and follow a bridle path for 2½ miles: there was no visible path, just really rough tussocky grassland. I was in no doubt that I was in the right spot, for I checked half a dozen times. There was nothing for it but to set off across country on a compass bearing. About a third of the way along the route, a track did appear below the hillside I was on, and just as mysteriously it ended at a gated gap in a wall, but from here the narrowest of paths led on through the grass.

Snag number two came after I had walked downhill from the derelict farmhouse of Cefn-carn with the intention of following a footpath along the northern side of the Afon Gamlan. There was an old ladder stile over a fence at the edge of Coed-y-Brenin forest, but no way through the conifer trees on the other side. Believe me, I tried, even though this involved wading into a huge pool of standing water that surrounded the stile. Studying my map, I saw that if I continued southwards I could cross the river by a bridge, from where there was an alternative path along the far side of the river. The new route proved to be good forestry tracks, which reached a second bridge that led me back to the north side of the river, where I wanted to be in the first place. However, before I got very far I found it necessary to sit down and remove my boots so that I could wring my socks out.

Downstream, a waterfall was marked on my map, Rhaeadr Ddu (the Black Waterfall). I had not researched this beforehand, and did not know what to expect. What I found was wonderful! In the midst of an oak woodland nature reserve, the Afon Gamlan tumbles over an outcrop of hard rocks, giving two wide falls, one seen offset to one side behind the other, but what makes it so special is that in the second half of the nineteenth century a worn Latin inscription was discovered, carved by an unknown hand on a rock by the waterfall. In 1919 this was found to be from Thomas Gray’s “Alcaic Ode written at the Grande Chartreuse”, when the poet was travelling on the Continent with his friend Horace Walpole in 1740. There is speculation as to who carved the inscription; the land was owned by William Maddocks (1774-1828), the man who built the embankment across the Mawddach estuary to reclaim the land, and his residence nearby was visited by many poets, among them Shelley. The original carving is almost gone, but it has been reproduced by the National Trust on a slate tablet in Latin with an English translation which reads:

‘O, thou! The Spirit ‘mid these scenes abiding,
Whate’er the name by which thy power be known
(Truly no mean divinity presiding
These native streams, these ancient forests own
And here on pathless rock or mountain height
Amid the torrent’s ever-echoing roar,
The headlong cliff, the wood’s eternal night,
We feel the Godhead’s aweful presence more
Than if resplendent neath the cedar beam,
By Phidias wrought, his golden image rose),
If meet the homage of thy vot’ry seem
Grant to my youth – my wearied youth – repose.’

Now, I do not know what Mr Gray was on when he penned that, but what could be more meaningful to me at the end of my four days spent walking and living in the mountains? Ganllwyd was just a little bit further, and I was reunited with my van at 5:45 p.m.

P.S. I am indebted to John Llewelyn Jones for the information on Rhaeadr Ddu in his book The Waterfalls of Wales (1986).

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